There are few things that I’ve experienced in this industry that compare to having a conversation with Bruce Dern. It’s a privilege that I’ve had on numerous occasions now, and no matter the format, it’s always memorable. A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to sit down with him again in honor of the opening of The Hateful Eight, which in and of itself is something to look forward to. Factor in that this was going to be a longer form interview over lunch as opposed to the usual couple of minutes in a room made it all the more enticing. At the same time though, it left me with a challenge. How do you properly convey what it’s like to have a real heart to heart chat with Dern? I’d done a traditional interview a few years before when he was making the rounds for Nebraska and seen him at a few of the awards season events that year, but this was over two hours of unfiltered Bruce.
Bruce Dern is an intense man. I don’t mean that he’s angry or mean, just that he has passion, a fire in his belly. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear he was a younger man, right up until he gets all grandfatherly on you. When I sat down to eat and talk with him, it was after the press conference for The Hateful Eight, one that featured almost all of the cast in attendance but obviously focused heavily on Quentin Tarantino, writer/director of the chamber piece Western that Dern co-stars in. He plays a Confederate General named Sandy Smithers who is one of the eight dastardly characters trapped in a haberdashery during a blizzard. He spends much of the film sitting down, but his presence is always felt, in particular during one expended sequence that starts off the movie’s violent acts. After a bit of catching up with Dern, who I hadn’t seen in a few years, we talked a bit about the film itself, what I thought of it and how it was shaping up within the awards race. Chatter like that would quickly evolve into other topics though, especially once he found out I was a sports fan. Fun fact…Dern is really fond of spitting out sports trivia, in particular for baseball. He stumped me on multiple occasions, which probably isn’t as hard as it used to be, but it was just more evidence of the mind that this man has. He has treasures within there, both film related and life related, and he reveals them at periodic intervals.
The whole concept of interacting with Dern on a person to person basis is still kind of nuts to me. He’s such a presence in his films, be they Black Sunday, Coming Home, The Great Gatsby, The Hateful Eight, or Nebraska, that you still see them when you look at him. It’s something I don’t usually notice during interviews and it quickly subsided during our first conversation, easy going as that was, but when he would go into stories about working with Alfred Hitchcock, you’re reminded that you’re in the same room as a legend.
Throughout our conversation, there would be little moments that just prove how unique this man is. From just the way he’d tell the waiter that he wanted to make a substitution when ordering lunch (“Lemme ask you a question, and I’m an asshole, so forgive me…”) or how he’d get up close and put his hand over yours when getting to the important part of a story that means a lot to him, you really see the singular presence that Dern is. To some degree, you always wonder how much is a show when speaking with an actor, but it seems for all the world like this man has no interest in faking it. He pretends for a living, so he has no time for insincerity in his real life. It rubs off on you too, I have to say.
An interview with Dern is a two way street, as I’ve now become accustomed to. Any question you ask is game for a question back, if not a story. It’s refreshing and makes for a fun time, frankly. As an example, at any given point, he might break from his lunch and decide to ask you about what college you went to, which in turn could lead to a conversation about how good Stony Brook is at sports (he knew some of their better athletic departments and I let him know which alumni went on to play in the Major Leagues). You might also get advice on love, relationships, and other such personal items, furthering the grandfatherly vibe that he can give off while you pick at your club sandwich. The thing is, your grandfather doesn’t generally then talk about working with Tarantino.
On that end, he’s quick to praise the filmmaker who now has him in a position to be seen by more young audience members than ever before. Dern is obviously grateful to Alexander Payne for putting him in Nebraska, but especially now that Tarantino has gifted him a juicy role in The Hateful Eight (in addition to his cameo in Django Unchained), you can tell that there’s admiration there. The feeling seems to be mutual too, as one could probably spend hours imagining the conversations about film history that the two of them shared on set.
Here are a few choice quotes from Dern that came throughout the lunch, specifically about his time on set and with Tarantino:
“I loved working with him. He wrote the part for me and kind of gave me a risky role, simply because he’s not a normal character. You think he’s one thing, you know, because of the back history, but he really gave me…I feel there’s a sense of humanity in my character. Laura (Dern) pointed it out too.”
“He (Tarantino) gave me the greatest compliment. He came up to me one night while we were shooting, and a lot of times I had to just be in the chair, but it was a scene that I didn’t have dialogue in. He came up to me at two in the morning, and we’d been there since ten in the morning, and he said “You know, you are still here, finding different ways to do what you do.”
“He did a good job on this one. He kind of assembled an all star team, and he already has an all star team behind the camera, much the same as Alexander (Payne) does. Alexander said to me on the first day “What do you see here this morning that you’ve never seen before?” I said “Everyone seems to be pulling their oar” and he said “That’s because we have 90 people here, and 60 of them have worked every single day on every single film that I’ve ever made, and you sir, we’ve got your back”. He also said “I wonder if you’d do something for the two of us that I’m not sure you’ve ever been asked to do before?” He said “Let us do our jobs. Never show us anything. Let us find it.” That’s the first time I knew I had a partner there.”
This was actually my personal favorite quote from the whole afternoon, coming in regards to someone else in the cast of The Hateful Eight asking Tarantino why Dern was allowed to ad lib a line:
“One guy asked why I got to do that and Quentin said “Well, can you come up with that? He does shit I can’t write, and that’s why he’s here.”
“The Hateful Eight” is currently in theaters.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!